The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Colloquium Archive

John Duffy

Name: John Duffy, University of Notre Dame.

Presentation Title: “Everyday Rhetoric: Argument, Torture, and National Public Radio"

Date: February 18, 2010


“In the large and growing house of rhetoric and composition,” Charles Bazerman has written, “argument and its sister persuasion share an extensive and venerable room.” If this is indeed true, the room has undergone extensive remodeling of late. Technological and cultural changes such as the pervasiveness of Internet communication, the omnipresent media culture, and an increasingly polarized public discourse have created new possibilities and urgencies in oral and written argument. In such a dynamic and fluid communicative culture, teachers of writing may well ask if what we teach bears any relation to the way people argue in contemporary public and civic contexts, especially on-line contexts. How do the precepts of the twenty-first century composition class, in other words, align with argument as practiced in real-world settings outside the university? How well are we preparing students to negotiate such settings, both as critics and contributors? How relevant, finally, are our classrooms to practices of contemporary discourse, everyday rhetoric? John Duffy examines these questions in the context of a rhetorical dispute that took place on the webpage of the Ombudsman of National Public Radio (NPR) in June 2009. When the Ombudsman wrote an on-line column defending NPR’s policy of not using the word “torture” to describe the interrogation practices to which Islamic detainees were subjected under the Bush Administration (, over one thousand readers wrote in reply. Duffy analyzes the arguments made in these responses, their schemes and structures, strategies and constraints. Duffy argues that a close reading of these arguments has implications for the teaching of writing and, more broadly, for the study of written composition, literacy, and rhetoric.